Laughter in the Dark

The History of a Town

by M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, translated by I.P. Foote
Willem A. Meeuws (Oxford, England), 192 pp., £9

Shchedrin is known to English-speaking readers only by his great novel The Golovlyov Family, the most somber and pitiless instance of black comedy in Russian literature of the nineteenth century. Now, in the first English translation of The History of a Town, we see the master of political satire, for which he was best known in his own time. One sees at once that this book gave Zinoviev his model for The Yawning Heights, his uproarious fantasy written at the expense of communism under Stalin and Khrushchev a few years ago; the dissidents take pride in recovering the old Russian tradition. Zinoviev’s fabulous lbansk (a double pun which means Ivan’s town but also Fucktown)—derives plainly from Shchedrin’s farcical history of Glupov or Stupid Town, in which for hundreds of years the bewildered and passive Russian peasants do what they can in a sluggish way to live with the violence and lunacy of their tyrants.

In The Golovlyov Family, Shchedrin was the moralist who exposed the selfdestroying corruption of hypocrisy: the hypocrite and blood-sucker ludushka cheats and talks his family into the grave. In The History of a Town, a town is at the mercy of its long line of ferocious or half-dotty governors and has resigned itself to being wiped out or, at any rate, to its fate. The fable is still admired and popular in the Soviet Union for its rich ridicule of tsarist rule. Shchedrin is approved, though he is mildly reproached for his faith in gradual reform. But there are many passages distinctly applicable to contemporary life in the Soviet Union. Shchedrin himself explained the main purpose of his satire which was to examine the question of authority and its relation to the ruled. His governors, good and bad, mad or sluggish, create permanent victims fitted only for resigned obedience; they are always incurably “guilty of something and due for punishment….” To the subjects their rulers are “an all-powerful and, above all, incomprehensible and extraneous force” before whom kneeling becomes a way of life. They enjoy “relative happiness and well-being in times of particularly idle or incompetent governors, whose acts of administration are rare or nonexistent.” The irony of Shchedrin is not baldly polemical; it is far more the irony of a comic artist with a superb gift of savaging laughter and picaresque invention.

Shchedrin’s real name was Saltykov and on the subject of provincial governors he was an expert. He was a man with three lives. Born in 1826 and dying in 1889 he was the highly educated son of a fairly rich landowning family. He spent the first twenty years of his working life as an extremely efficient and scrupulous bureaucrat. Intellectually he was the product of the reawakening in the Forties; he was radical enough to be sent into provincial exile, but his abilities were indispensable and he become a vice-governor. When the reforms that followed the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 were attempted, he left the service …

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